Jeff's World of Game Design

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Oh the dragon bites, with his teeth, babe

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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If you didn't read the last post, well, I don't blame you, it was mathy, but there was one detail tucked away that leads in an interesting, and different, direction.

In my new game The Cause, each card has up to four rewards that it can pay out, and we talked about balancing each card by making the assumption that four die rolls should yield three rewards, which should be worth five cubes' worth of stuff. Three rewards = Five cubes, that's the central formula of this aspect of the game.

Now in the post, and in some subsequent off-camera work, I've done some analysis to translate the different rewards into cube-equivalent values, but the most interesting thing about the system to my mind is that there isn't a way to divide 5 cubes' worth of stuff symmetrically between 3 rewards. The rewards on a given card won't all be equally good, which will, one hopes, lead to interesting decisions.


What interests me for the present post is how we can apply this concept to our ongoing conversation about interplayer friction. For those new to the blog (welcome!), the gist of this conversation (covered in Ch. 13 of my book, or this post) is that it is the exciting moments of interaction between players that propel a game's story forward and culminate in the game's exciting conclusion. Friction carries the sense of resistance to movement, and our collisions with our opponents entail impeding their progress toward victory while simultaneously evading the impediments they try to put in our path. The more friction our game produces, the more vigorous the contest between players will feel.


As another previous pair of posts previously propounded, friction comes in different forms, and different degrees. To explore these differences, we need to introduce a new concept, which I'll refer to as bite.

What is "bite"? It isn't an entirely precise term, but maybe it's related to how pointed the friction between players is. For example, games that I frequently use as go-to examples like Web of Power, Lost Cities, and Chinatown have tons of interaction and friction, but not much bite. But it isn't just direct interaction either; Puerto Rico has no direct interaction but lots of bite. In an interactive/frictional game we shake hands as we close the deal, in a game with bite, one of us is wearing a joy buzzer. In a frictional game, I plant tent stakes in your back yard; in a game with bite, I announce my arrival with an air horn at 4 am.


Say that you and I are walking down the street, and we happen upon a lost wallet that contains two $20 bills. Presumably we'd just split the money down the middle, a $20 for each of us. That's how a lot of interactions in a lot of games work: what's the most equitable/amicable accommodation we can come to?

But what if, instead, the wallet contains a $20 and a $10? Now we can't split the money evenly, and now our interaction has some bite to it. That conversation will be much more interesting to watch, much more interesting to participate in. And I claim that a game can generate more interest the more bite its interactions contain.

Say instead that I found the wallet, and only I know what's inside. And say that I put a bill "frankly" on the table, and a sealed envelope, which presumably contains a different bill or bills, beside it, and let you choose, the bill on the table or the envelope? This is how the mechanic of Tussie Mussie works, and it introduces bite to the familiar I split-you choose mechanic.
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One of the best examples of bite comes from Dragon's Gold. This is a negotiation game where, after we kill the dragon, anyone involved gets to participate in divvying up the treasure, but we only have a minute, and if we don't all agree, the treasure is lost.

More and more, I am coming to the view that Bruno Faidutti is the best of the great game designers, because his games make room for the human dimension in ways that the (excellent) games of Knizia and Kramer miss. (And I didn't even put him on design Rushmore, a disgraceful omission!) The Assassin in Citadels is mean, it's take-that, it means you lose a turn. Well, yeah. Sometimes the way to bring a leader back to the pack is to trip him from behind. Faidutti gets it.

And it's the human dimension that makes Dragon's Gold so bitey. In most games, players receive rewards commensurate with investment or effort. Area control games like Web of Power or El Grande reward the player with the most pieces in the region the most points. Not always proportional, but at least commensurate. Dragon's Gold blows that quaint notion up with a holy hand grenade. Once the dragon is slain, all memory of who invested what cards to bring the dragon down is gone, at least mechanically. To be sure, "I invested the most cards, I deserve the best reward!" is something you'll hear players say, and if that successfully persuades their opponents, bully on them, but equally valid is to hold out to get what you want even if you contributed hardly anything. "But that's not fair," players whine. "Tough [expletive]", the game replies!

Now in Dragon's Gold, there's enough loot that it's possible to arrange a set of piles that at least approximately look "fair", but I think there's equally great potential for a game in which we must divide something up unfairly, akin to finding a wallet with a $5, a $10, and a $20, and having to spilt it between the three of us, how do we decide?


Positional asymmetry is another way to bring about bite. The TV show Survivor went through an interesting evolution. In early seasons, when the tribes merged and one former tribe got to be a player up on the other tribe, they would inevitably go on to have two of its members in the finale. Predictable and boring. But what players in later seasons came to realize was that, if the tribe is down to 7 people and there's an alliance of 6 people and you, you are actually incredibly powerful because you can provide a swing vote to assist a sub-faction of three within that 6-person alliance. Thus there's more haggling and backstabbing and the game is more lively now. The weak hand might actually be the whip hand. Much more bite.


Another example comes from the calamities in Civilization. We're making trades to try to get ahead, but if I have a calamity, I'm sure enough going to try to pass it along to you, nothing personal, it's just business. Who do I think I can trust, who might be bluffing, who can I hoodwink? There's tremendous bite in that interaction.

Which makes it all the more interesting to me that Sidereal Confluence, which is heavily inspired by the trading of Civ, doesn't have any sense of bite in its trading; the best strategy is to make mostly fair deals, unless you're the Zeth. I guess it's a game for nice people, which makes sense because Tau is a nice person. It just goes to show that a game doesn't need bite to be good (of my five BGG 10's, of which Sidereal is one, only PR is especially bitey), but it's nevertheless worth being on the lookout for simple things like asymmetric rewards or uneven/unstable mini-alliances that introduce bite.


Of course, the game with the most bite of all is I Vant to Bite Your Finger. I blogged back in 2019 about using little stampers as game components, haven't really done anything with the idea since then but worth mentioning it again. You could see a variant idea of Dragon's Gold that's a bit like the famous scene in the Hobbit, "who's going to go down there and get the treasure?", and a stamper is used to apply "bite marks" to the unlucky schlepp who gets stuck with dragon duty, based on how the resulting encounter in the dragon's lair goes. But all that is neither here nor there.


However you want to think of "bite", seeking it out in games you play and seeking to find ways to bring it about in games you design is always a good move, and sure to earn your game high marks on "Jeff's scale of interactive goodness", namely, that the higher the percentage of moves after which at least one player curses the active player, the better the game is!


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